Rensselaer County groups join forces to combat sexual assault

Fred Aliberti, Hudson Valley's director of public safety, spoke about the recent changes in SUNY sexual assault response policies at the conference.

Fred Aliberti, Hudson Valley’s director of public safety, spoke about the recent changes in SUNY sexual assault response policies at the conference.

Andrea Currie

News Editor

More than 100 people attended the Rensselaer County Sexual Assault Response Team’s fifth annual conference “Joining Forces: Reducing and Responding to Sexual Assault Across Disciplines,” held Jan. 15 at Hudson Valley.

Lindsey Crusan, director of the Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Assistance Program at Samaritan Hospital, delivered a welcome address in the BTC auditorium. She thanked local colleges and New York State Criminal Justice Services for co-sponsoring the conference.

Fred Aliberti, director of public safety at Hudson Valley, spoke next. He discussed recent changes in sexual assault response policies at the college level and urged the audience to take advantage of all available resources and partnerships.

Elizabeth Cronin, director of the New York State Office of Victim Services, then spoke. She said that enormous progress has been made since she first started work as a special victims prosecutor in Westchester County, but there is still far to go.

Cronin said that the recent allegations against Bill Cosby were emblematic of the difficulties of prosecuting sex crimes: the women accusing him of rape and sexual assault waited decades to make their allegations public, so there is no longer any forensic evidence, and Cosby’s costars and family have defended him and denied the allegations.

After the opening remarks, participants attended two workshop sessions, then broke for lunch, then attended two more sessions before the day’s end. Attendees chose from three options for each session.

During the first workshop session, Mike Fonda, a prevention educator from Samaritan Hospital’s Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Assistance Program, presented a talk titled “Implementing a Bystander Program in a Correctional Setting.”

Fonda adapted the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, originally created for athletes, for use in Rensselaer County correctional facilities. He also presents versions of the program to local YMCAs, colleges, and high schools.

Fonda said that the MVP program educates participants about their options when they witness sexual harassment or assault, beyond direct confrontation or inaction. “The more options we give to people, the more likely it is they’ll take some sort of action,” said Fonda.

“We want to challenge thinking. We can’t say, Well, you know, that’s just the way America is, and I’m not going to stick my neck out,” said Fonda.

Fonda said that he advertises the program as a leadership program, so that inmates can nominate themselves to participate. He said that he does not screen participants or ask them why they are incarcerated.

Fonda said that the Male Box is a critical part of the program. In this visual exercise, he asks participants to fill in a blank box with attributes of a ‘real man,’ such as what he eats, what cars he drives, and what jobs he has. Then he asks participants to write, outside the box, derogatory names for men who don’t fit this description. Nearly all the terms, from “little girl” to “sissy” to expletives, are feminine.

“In order to insult a man, you refer to him as a woman, in essence saying that women aren’t equal to men,” said Fonda. He said that after this exercise, he asks participants whether, as leaders, they can support men who don’t fit the stereotypical description of a ‘real man.’

Fonda also presents the Pyramid of Abuse, which starts with language and jokes, then escalates to objectification, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault, and murder. “It’s a system,” he said. “If you have a problem with the stuff up top, you gotta have a problem with the stuff at the bottom. … The little things, when they start to add up, they create the big things.”

He has participants “Make an Argument,” in which they play the role of victim’s advocate. “The idea of this is to put them in the victim’s shoes and push them to come up with ways to protect her,” said Fonda.

After going through the program, Fonda said, the men have a heightened awareness of the issues and want to improve their own behavior. “It’s important that you know you’re not stuck in that box,” he said. “You don’t have to be a ‘real man.’”

During the second workshop session, FBI Victim Specialist Cori Brooks and FBI Special Agent Dave Fallon gave a talk titled “The Investigation and Victim Assistance Response to Sexual Exploitation of Children.”

Fallon said that on average, children become victims at age 13, and their life expectancy in the system is seven years. “If they escape the life nearly unscathed, it’s a miracle,” he said.

Fallon and Brooks discussed the exploitation process, which consists of three stages: grooming, training, and controlling children. They said that pimps recruit children via social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, as well as via text messages and through friends, family, and parties.

Brooks and Fallon discussed Operation Cross Country, which aims to recover juvenile victims of sex trafficking across the nation and is now in its eighth iteration. Fallon said that during Operation Cross Country VII, 375 children were rescued in 3 days in hotel sting operations.

 

 

Brooks said that when law enforcement recovers victims, they make sure to build a rapport. She recounted one recent case, a victim recovered in a sting operation at a Colonie hotel. Brooks gave the girl a backpack full of clothes, candy, and toiletries, and sat with her for several hours. She cooperated much faster than is typical, Brooks said. After FBI agents returned the girl to her family, Brooks stayed in constant contact with her for the next two weeks. But as soon as the pimp contacted the victim, he convinced her not to trust the agents, and the case fell apart.

During the third workshop session, Bill Schaefer, a founding member and co-leader of Northern New York Call to Men, led a roundtable discussion called “Engaging Men as Allies.”

Elena, a counselor from START Children’s Center of Rensselaer County, said that men-as-allies issues came up when fathers learned their children had been assaulted. “They want that automatic social cultural reaction of “It’s the victim’s fault,” they want to have that kick in–but it’s their kid, and they can’t,” she said, adding, “You can see the internal struggle going on.”

Norris Pearson, the Operations Manager for the RPI Field House, said that attitudes at RPI had changed significantly since he began working there 20 years ago. He said that last year, he and four other RPI staff and faculty spoke with more than 40 men’s groups, but he wanted to create more of a grassroots effort at the college.

Schaefer said that groups partnering with men should keep in mind that direct requests work better than hints, that men are solution-oriented, and that men prefer action to discussion.

During the fourth workshop session, Lindsey Crusan, who introduced the conference, gave a talk called “Moving Past “He/She got what was coming”: The experience of a PREA New York State services pilot site” [title sic].

The Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, was passed in 2003 and established a zero-tolerance policy for rape and sexual assault in correctional facilities, said Crusan.

Crusan said that in 2008, more than 209,400 people were victimized in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities in the U.S.

“There’s this really nasty public perception at play,” she said. “A lot of times, people feel like they got what was coming to them.”

“No one, regardless of what they’ve done, deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted,” said Crusan. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve committed the most heinous crime possible.”

In early 2014, the Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Assistance Program at Samaritan Hospital became one of five pilot program sites to offer counseling and other services to incarcerated victims of sexual assault. The sites were established with PREA grants to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).

SACVAP staff decided to offer counseling by phone because the facilities in their jurisdiction were all at least one hour’s drive away. There are no state prison facilities in Rensselaer County.

“Very naively, we really thought that three staff would be plenty, because we did not anticipate getting many calls,” said Crusan. “We really thought over the entire six-month course of the pilot, we might get, you know, 20 calls total.”

Instead, she said, during the first four months of the program, March, April, May, and June, there were between 21 and 41 calls per month. In July and August, there were seven calls per month. By that point, SACVAP staff were providing follow-up services to between four and eight people.

“The people that we worked with, especially for ongoing services, they were so grateful, and they were such incredible people. … A couple of them were actually released towards the end of the pilot, and we helped them set up services in their local community,” said Crusan.

One person, she said, wrote a letter to DOCCS calling the program “life-changing.”

Since then, DOCCS has applied to extend SACVAP’s contract until Sep. 2015. Crusan said that two more SACVAP staff have agreed to participate this time.

Crusan said that in the future, she hopes that a statewide system will be in place and that there will be widespread prevention education. Crusan cited the work of Mike Fonda as an example of successful prevention education.

 

 

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